In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, the 67th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) is being held from March 6th to March 19th, 2023. The CSW is an intergovernmental organization that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls worldwide. Since its establishment in 1946, the CSW has served as a platform for governments to discuss and address the challenges faced by women.
During the annual two-week session held at the UN headquarters in New York, representatives from member states, UN entities, and civil society organizations come together to review progress, identify challenges, and set global standards and policies for advancing women and girls. This year’s session focuses on the theme, “Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls in the decade of action for sustainable development”, to accelerate efforts to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The CSW has played a vital role in advancing women’s rights and gender equality worldwide. It has helped develop and adopt global norms and standards on women’s rights and gender equality while promoting women’s political participation and leadership, ending violence against women and girls, and ensuring women’s access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities.
The roots of Indian feminism run deep into the country’s social and cultural fabric, shaped by various factors, including political, religious, and economic developments. Since time immemorial, Indian feminists have advocated for women’s rights and gender equality and fought against gender-based violence.
The feminist movement in India emerged in the late 19th century during the colonial period, fueled by women’s groups that aimed to improve the status of women in society. Despite being influenced by the broader social and political context of the time, including the struggle for Indian independence and the rise of socialist and communist movements, these organizations remained steadfast in their focus on women’s education and empowerment.
As India fought for independence, feminist leaders such as Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Nehru, and Aruna Asaf Ali played a pivotal role in the movement. With the adoption of the Indian Constitution, women were granted equal rights and opportunities. However, implementing these rights has been a slow and ongoing struggle, and feminist activists in India have since focused on various issues such as education, employment, and political representation.
As a founding member of the CSW established by UN as a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council in 1946, India’s participation was a defining moment in the global fight for women’s rights and gender equality. Among its representatives was Shareefa Hamid Ali, a fearless Muslim Indian feminist who left an indelible mark on the commission’s work. She was one of only two women on the Indian delegation, composed chiefly of men. As a Muslim woman from Hyderabad, she brought a unique perspective to the commission’s work and advocated for women’s rights in India and worldwide.
Through her relentless advocacy, Shareefa Hamid Ali helped shape the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ensuring it included strong language on women’s equality and non-discrimination. Her efforts paved the way for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, one of the most significant human rights treaties of our time. Her work at the CSW helped establish women’s rights as a critical priority for the UN and set the stage for adopting the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979.
Shareefa Hamid Ali’s influence extended far beyond the UN. She was a founding member of several feminist organizations in India, including the All India Women’s Conference, the Women’s Indian Association and the National Council of Women in India. Shareefa Hamid Ali passed away in 1993, but her legacy as a feminist political figure inspires generations of women to fight for their rights and take their place in politics and public life.
Today, feminism in India is more diverse and complex than ever before. Over the years, Indian feminism has taken many forms, reflecting the diversity of experiences and struggles faced by women in the country. Despite progress in Indian society, feminism in India still faces many challenges and gender inequality remains pervasive in India, with deep-seated cultural and societal norms that perpetuate gender inequality and women facing discrimination, harassment, dowry deaths and violence daily, with India reporting the highest total number of dowry deaths worldwide, according to which 20 women die every day as a result of Dowry related harassment. Women’s groups and activists continue fighting for equal rights, particularly in pay parity, workplace harassment, and domestic violence. There have also been several high-profile cases of rape and sexual assault that have sparked nationwide outrage and protests. However, the movement continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of women in the country, with feminist activists and organizations working tirelessly to bring about lasting change.
Unfortunately, progress is hindered by those who misuse feminism for personal gain and how it is sometimes used to narrow political or ideological agendas further. The abuse of Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, meant to protect women from domestic violence, is an example of how the system can be manipulated to extort money and other benefits, leading to a rise in false accusations and a backlash against feminism.
Furthermore, misinterpreting feminism as an excuse for man-hating behaviour only widens the divide between men and women, ultimately undermining the movement for gender equality. It is crucial to recognize that feminism is not about hating men or promoting women at the expense of men. Instead, it is about creating a more equitable and just society for all individuals, regardless of gender.
Regardless, the women’s movement in India remains a potent and significant catalyst for change. Through collaboration and tireless advocacy, activists and organizations are working towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, paving the way for a brighter future for women in India and worldwide. There is still much work to be done, but by addressing these challenges and staying true to the principles of feminism, we can create a more inclusive and equal society for all. The UN CSW is pivotal in supporting and amplifying these endeavours. Together, we can make a world of gender equality leading to a more just and equitable society for all, where every gender can thrive, unencumbered by discrimination or oppression.
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